Jennifer Ellis and Maurice Emmanuel Parent shared a moment at an art exhibit in a scene from “Far From Heaven.”
Jennifer Ellis could scarcely be better in SpeakEasy Stage Company’s “Far From Heaven.’’ She delivers an exquisite performance as a 1950s Hartford housewife whose cosseted existence simultaneously falls apart and opens up.
But “Far From Heaven’’ itself could be better. Much better.
This shallow musical adaptation of the 2002 film by Todd Haynes never really develops its own signature, despite the best efforts of talented SpeakEasy director Scott Edmiston. Precious few of its two dozen songs make a vivid impression, which is something of a surprise given that the score is by Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics), the duo behind the anything-but-generic “Grey Gardens.’’
Playwright Richard Greenberg’s gift for incisive social portraiture, so palpable in 2013’s “The Assembled Parties,’’ is barely discernible in his by-the-numbers script for “Far From Heaven,’’ which received a preview production two summers ago at Williamstown Theatre Festival and was performed last year at Playwrights Horizons in New York. Some of the tweaks Greenberg has made to Haynes’s screenplay are dubious ones, placing ham-handed italics on moments that were left unspoken in the movie.
So the SpeakEasy audience is left to contemplate that paradoxical, not-uncommon specimen of the theater: a memorable central performance in a show that is not.
Skillfully traversing the emotional spectrum in her portrayal of Cathy Whitaker, Ellis is a marvel. Cathy wears a bright prom-queen smile, as if she hopes the appearance of good cheer can lead to its actuality and stave off threats to her domestic stability.
But from the start there’s a tremulous edge to her expression, and part of Ellis’s achievement is to artfully adjust Cathy’s smile, in degree and in kind, as change starts flooding into her life. Every moment rings true in this performance, from Cathy’s quiet devastation at the collapse of her marriage to the way she reaches for the possibility of new love with an African-American gardener named Raymond Deagan, played by Maurice Emmanuel Parent.
His portrayal of Raymond is a bit tentative, as if the actor is still working out his interpretation of the character, played by Dennis Haysbert with quiet moral force in the movie. My money would be on the versatile Parent to figure it out, given his history of strong performances, including in SpeakEasy productions of “The (Expletive) With the Hat’’ and “The Color Purple.’’
Jared Troilo is excellent as Frank Whitaker, Cathy’s closeted gay husband. Troilo skillfully communicates the combination of anguish Frank feels (as he gauges the impact on his family) and the sense of release the character experiences when he embraces his sexuality.
In Charles Schoonmaker’s period-perfect costumes, Troilo and Ellis look smashing together. It’s entirely believable that their social circle would lionize them as the Golden Couple — and that Frank and Cathy would do everything in their power to keep that illusion alive for as long as they can. The hollowness of their image-is-all milieu is suggested by the large, empty picture frames on Eric Levenson’s set.
Aimee Doherty is an asset as Cathy’s sardonic best friend, as are Will McGarrahan as the psychiatrist whom Frank sees in the hope of “heterosexual conversion’’ and Kerry A. Dowling as a snoopy writer for a local society newspaper.
It’s notable that SpeakEasy’s “Far From Heaven’’ is the second show to open in a week — the Huntington Theatre Company’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’’ being the other — that pivots upon an interracial relationship, though “Heaven’’ is set a decade earlier than “Dinner’’ and revolves around a yearned-for rather than in-progress romance.
The ugly racism of the ’50s is woven through the musical, a useful corrective for anyone tempted to sentimentalize the Eisenhower era, underscoring the dangers faced by Cathy and especially Raymond. The strengthening of their bond in the face of pervasive prejudice is nicely underscored by an Ellis-Parent duet titled “The Only One.’’
It’s the most resonant song in the show, and, unfortunately, one of the too-few times this stage adaptation feels animated by a fresh vision and we get the sense that “Far From Heaven’’ is standing on its own.
A clip from the production:
By Don Aucoin
September 15, 2014
‘Far From Heaven’
Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion,
Boston Center for the Arts, 617-933-8600
Book by Richard Greenberg. Music by Scott Frankel. Lyrics by Michael Korie. Based on the film written and directed by Todd Haynes.
Directed by Scott Edmiston.
Musical direction, Steven Bergman. Choreography, David Connolly. Set, Eric Levenson. Costumes, Charles Schoonmaker. Lights, Karen Perlow. Sound, Noah Thomas., Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company
Broadway in Boston
Oct. 11 2014